What Teach for America Taught Me (And Why You Should Apply)

by Andrew Pratt

Greetings college seniors, recent graduates working unpaid internships at non-profits, and idealistic career-changers! This is a friendly reminder that the 4th application deadline to join the 2013 Teach For America corps is January 11. In light of that fast-approaching date, I want to address a few lessons I learned about jobs, working, and getting better at working at your job from my time in TFA.

There’s a lot about teaching itself that was terrible and painful. There were parts of it that were satisfying and uplifting. A lot of folks who did TFA would likely say something similar; a lot of them might say something different. But the organization trains and deploys several thousand idealistic people each year to try and untangle the Gordian knot of poverty, class, race, and politics that undergird educational inequality in the United States. It’s difficult to summarize what that’s like in a single story. What I will generalize about is this: teaching taught me a lot about education, but it simultaneously taught me a lot about how to approach complicated problems, including the problem of having a job that was very, very hard to do well. Here are a few lessons I’ll share:

Sometimes in life, you are miserably, soul-crushingly bad at something. Own it.

I was desperate to get out of school at 4:30 p.m. one cold, dark Friday in February during my first year teaching. My principal had asked me to check in with her before I left for the day, so I collapsed into a chair outside her office to wait while she finished another meeting. The clock ticked by. Other staffers with more pressing matters came and went. Finally the door opened and my co-teacher and I entered. It was 6:30 p.m.; I’d been at school since 7:30 a.m.; and I wanted nothing more than to make it home and forget the disastrous lessons, the screaming middle schoolers, and the late nights that had consumed the week.

“The children in your class are not getting what they need,” my principal began, and proceeded to tear apart every element of my teaching from how I incentivized silent reading time to the worksheets I spent hours writing from scratch every night. Moreover, she said, “I’ve talked with your students and they don’t respect you.” The takedown lasted 30 minutes, and when I got into my car, all I could do was scream and sob, because she was right. I was trying really hard to teach my students well, but I was doing a really bad job of it.

The first thing I had to accept was that even though I thought I had the methods for doing things right in my class, what I was doing wasn’t working. I was banging my head against techniques that weren’t right for my students because I didn’t know what else to do. Despite the unpleasantness of having a boss keep you late on a Friday evening to tell you that you’re terrible at your job, I had to accept that at that moment, I was terrible at my job.

Fast-forward to the beginning of the next school year. The same principal rolls into an afternoon class with the district superintendent to show him how I’m using the iPads she’s provided to me. She appoints me to the school leadership committee. She brings visitors to observe lessons in my classroom.

I got better as a teacher. (I was not great, but acceptable.) But I wouldn’t have been able to do it without first accepting just how bad I was. That ability to reflect on my own shortcomings is an invaluable professional and personal asset. It requires the humility to ask for help, and the willingness to abandon methods that I thought would work, but don’t. Because no matter how hard I may be working at something, I can accept the fact that I may be doing a terrible job at it, and need to start over.

To get better at something, you have to measure.

One of the suggestions in the TFA application materials was to include measurable results on your resume. How much did you increase sales? How many more email subscribers did you sign up? How many doors did you knock on? This is a decent suggestion for crafting a resume for any job application, but the larger point in the education context is that you have to be able to make decisions based on evidence. One of the most powerful forms of evidence with which to make decisions is data. You know, numbers and so forth.

On a certain level, this could seem like a stupid lesson. The business made more money during April than it did during March? Great. You’re doing it right. Your boss can make a data-driven decision to not fire your ass in May.

The more important skill is to measure the right variables in a situation, interpret the data, and then recognize correlations. Good teachers atomize their teaching so they can do this measuring on a daily basis. Let’s say I teach a lesson on adding fractions using counting blocks. At the end of the lesson, I’ll ask a short question similar to one students practiced on during the lesson. After class, I’ll count up the answers and see if most of the students got it, if only some of them got it, or if no one really understood. If most of the class could do the problem on their own, the likely connection is that the way I taught it worked. I can move on to the next lesson. If a lot of students didn’t get it, I need to re-teach the lesson, and I need to teach it in a different way. Gathering data like this on a regular basis lets a teacher know if what he or she is doing in class is working.

Teach a lesson day after day without measuring the results of what you did that day, and you’re likely to have bored students who are ready to move ahead and frustrated students who haven’t understood the past month of what you’ve taught. Bored and frustrated middle schoolers tend to throw things. The point being that if you really want to get better at something, measure what you’re doing at regular intervals, and change course. Measure again and adjust course again after that. Repeat until you’re ready to retire.

Innovating or experimenting means failing over and over and over.

Even when you’re ready to admit that you don’t know how to do something well, and even when you’re ready to count, measure, and correlate your way to getting better, there’s a special mindset necessary for sussing out exactly how to fix a problem. Call it tinkering; call it experimenting; call it innovating. It means trying different approaches over and over, even if you never find the right one.

I taught 7th-grade English for two years to students with wildly different needs. Some arrived in my class reading on or above grade level. On average, they were a two and a half years behind; some were four years behind. Much of my teaching experience was about trying to motivate, convince, and cajole students into buying the idea that paying attention to basic directions about how to think, read, and write was better than chattering away to the person sitting next to you.

But what’s ultimately more important for middle-schoolers is reading at home, on their own. Here the correlation is strong and stark. Of the 8th-grade students who scored in the top one-quarter on a national reading test 2011, 36 percent read for fun almost every day. Of the students who scored in the bottom one-quarter on the same test, a mere 8 percent read for fun almost every day. To succeed as an English teacher, I had to get my students reading outside of class.

One basic tool for holding students accountable for reading outside of class is a “reading log.” This is essentially a paper where a student tracks what he or she read, for how long, and how many pages. I made dozens of different reading logs over the course of two years. Some were multiple pages long with stars and pictures of books, and gave students ample room to write responses to what they read. Some had lots of instructions at the top for how long to read and how to write about the books. When I wasn’t getting enough writing back from students, I squished blank lines together and made the spaces smaller. With less room to write, some students wrote more.

Later, I created an web form for students to type in their reading logs online. Students gamed it by saying that they were sure they had submitted it the night before. I changed the form to time-stamp when they hit submit. I took down the form when students gamed the system again by typing the same responses day after day (some did the same on paper). Even with the form deleted from the Internet, students still came in saying they had used it the night before.

I collected young adult books for my students to read and built a sizable classroom library. I made Amazon wish lists and asked friends to buy a few titles. Family members sent me books in the mail, scoured sales at public libraries, brought me bags full to take into school. I interviewed students on the kinds of TV shows they liked, the sports they played, if they liked scary stories or funny stories — all so I could make recommendations on what book to borrow next and read at home.

Whenever I spoke with a parent, I talked about reading at home. I told them it was just as important as working in class. I made suggestions for The Hunger Games, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Twilight. It didn’t matter, I said, just read a book!

I pirated ebooks and posted them online so that students with iPads and smartphones could download and read them at home. Eventually, I just gave print books away.

And after two years trying everything I could to get kids to read more at home, the reading logs showed that my students were doing less than 20 percent of the reading I wanted them to do. If I was still in the classroom, I’d have spent every week since August tinkering with different ways to get my students reading. It’s unlikely I would stumble upon an explosive, eureka-inducing solution. I’d just keeping tinkering away, trying to invent a new combination of conditions that will get 7th-graders to read their way into that top quartile.

I left the classroom after my two-year commitment, and while I now work for an education nonprofit, my job is in a low-income middle school very similar to the one where I taught, and my days are spent supporting teachers and students. The project I work on is new, so I am simultaneously the best and worst employee to ever have my current job. I tinker and measure and tinker and measure. I accept that some days, I’m terrible at what I’m doing. I’ll get better at it, and I’ll use the same lessons to get better at whatever I do next. Now go finish your application.

See also: “Teach for America Burned Me Out”

Andrew Plemmons Pratt is a 2010 Teach For America alum. He lives and works in Washington, DC, writes about education and technology at appratt.com &@appratt, and reads for fun almost every day.

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